What Does Fasting on Yom Kippur Mean to You? 7 Jews Share Their Perspectives

October 7, 2019Deborah Rood Goldman

During Yom Kippur, many Jews may wish one another “an easy fast,” but I’ve always been curious: How many of us find meaning in our fast, going beyond the physical discomfort and into serious introspection? And what meaning, exactly, do we find?

From those who always fast to those who have considered not doing so – and those who share how health reasons impact their fast – here are a few personal perspectives about fasting on the holiest day of the Jewish year.

What’s your perspective? Tell us in the comments or find us on Facebook or Twitter to share your views.

1. “I connect to the act of fasting on a deep and almost nostalgic level.”

I decided to start fasting on Yom Kippur when I was a kid – even before I became a bat mitzvah. I was the only Jewish kid in my hometown, and by first grade, I’d already begun to experience anti-Semitism. I knew I was different – so I decided that I wanted to embrace it.

That said, I didn’t know exactly what embracing my Judaism should entail, so I just started following the rules of the holidays as well as I could. I fasted on Yom Kippur (OK, except for the mints a friend’s mom slipped us during services to pacify us into patience), and I examined every food label at Passover. Was this the epitome of living a deep, meaningful Jewish life? No, but I did what I could with what I knew, and eventually, those small acts added up to one big, proud Jewish identity.

These days, I have a vibrant Jewish community and a more robust knowledge of Judaism – and it turns out I don’t find fasting as personally meaningful anymore. I’m more apt to go to services and spend the day journaling and reflecting than to put all my effort into a fast.

Still, I connect to the act of fasting on a deep and almost nostalgic level because, as a child, fasting on Yom Kippur was the sort of willful Jewish action that set me apart from my peers, that declared that I was unabashedly and unashamedly Jewish. I am grateful for that defiant little girl who insisted on fasting because her actions, ultimately, led me to become the Jewish woman I am today.

(Submitted by Kate K.)

2. “The intention and self-reflection behind the fasting have always been the true reason Yom Kippur has been meaningful in my life.”

I first completed a Yom Kippur fast when I was 12 years old – and the year prior, I almost managed it. As a child, I’d watched my parents fast and felt a sense of obligation to start fasting once I became a bat mitzvah; until then, like many Israeli children, I took to the empty streets on my bicycle, but only after I sat in my room and thought about what I was sorry about. I prayed and truly reflected about my previous year, apologizing to my sister for yelling at her, to my mom for getting annoyed at her singing, to my dad for not always being patient, and to friends for schoolgirl arguments.

At 11, I was determined to prepare myself for the next year. I was so stuffed after the arukah mafseket (the meal before the fast begins) that I was convinced there was no way I’d ever be hungry again – certainly not before nighttime the next day. Until lunchtime the next day, I was doing fine, but by early afternoon, my stomach started growling. At 3:00p.m., my mom encouraged me to eat something; at 4:00p.m., I caved.

Back then, I felt pretty defeated. Now, when I look back at 11-year-old me, I actually feel rather proud. I was genuinely intentional, maybe more than I sometimes have been as an adult who fully completes the fast (and the afternoon hours are still a struggle, to this day).

I wouldn’t say I look forward to fasting, but it is probably the most meaningful Jewish tradition to me – and today, I realize that the intention and self-reflection behind the fasting have always been the true reason Yom Kippur has been meaningful in my life.

(Submitted by Daphne M.)

3. “Fasting on Yom Kippur is just what we do.”

I remember the year my dad spent the entire day and evening of Yom Kippur at synagogue, while my mom came home from the morning service and ate lunch: She said she did not ascribe to self-imposed suffering, which is what she considered the fast to be. My sister Lisa and I would change out of our temple dresses and sit together in the backyard, stomachs growling, waiting to see which one of us would bring out food first… and eat it in front of the other.

I admit that I don’t look forward to fasting, and I continue to indulge in annual pre-Yom Kippur kvetching about that element of the holiday. I sometimes think of my mom and wonder, “Why am I doing this to myself?” but my husband always has the same reply – that fasting on Yom Kippur is “just what we do.”

Every year, I wonder: What would the holiday be like without hunger? Would I find different meaning in the liturgy? Would I feel differently about the holiday as it approaches? Would I still think about those who go hungry every day? Today, I can’t remember a year I’ve skipped the fast, except as a nursing mom; I find that fasting is easier if I stay in synagogue, where the prayers and my community occupy my mind.

After all, it’s just what we do.

(Submitted by Deborah G.)

4. “Being pregnant during Yom Kippur required a change of mindset – finding a new way to respond to the challenge of the holiday and the fast.”

Since I was a teen, fasting on Yom Kippur has been a way to help me reflect on the past year. Sure, there are years when I haven’t been in the right headspace, but generally, it works for me.

Twice, I was pregnant on Yom Kippur and did not yet know, but when I was pregnant with our third child, I did. It was very early in my pregnancy, and we were not yet telling anyone; having suffered a miscarriage before, we wanted to keep this to ourselves. Knowing that I was pregnant meant there was actually an obligation to eat, as Judaism teaches that health takes precedence over fasting.

Despite this knowledge, it was difficult for me to change a habit and custom that had been so ingrained and, in a profound way, was a catalyst for introspection and reflection. This required me to change my annual routine so as to eat at home during times one would likely find me at the congregation – times that allowed me space, beyond the ritual and prayer, to think about who I was and who I wanted to become.

It required a change of mindset – finding a new way to respond to the challenge of the holiday and fasting experience.

(Submitted by Lisa L.)

5. “I’m not sure whether fasting has been an effective tool for helping me focus on the work of atonement and self-improvement.”

I remember my first efforts to fast. I started trying to keep the custom for part of the day before I turned 13. I felt a sense of pride in joining this elite club for Jewish adults. Once, when I was 15 or 16, I reflexively stopped for a drink of water at the water fountain by the front doors of our synagogue as I walked past it. Suddenly realizing it was Yom Kippur, I cast furtive glances to each side as I wiped my mouth; my grandfather, the head usher, was often lurking in the lobby. I didn’t think God would punish me, but I sure hoped no adults had spotted me.

I’m not sure whether fasting has been an effective tool for helping me focus on the work of atonement and self-improvement. I find it hard to focus on anything else when my stomach is rumbling or my head is pounding. When I was old enough to drive, my mother would ask me to go home on Yom Kippur afternoon and ready food for the meal we were inevitably hosting to break the fast. Fasting while preparing food for other people felt almost impossible (and I may or may not have accidentally licked my fingers once or twice.)

As I grew into adulthood, one might say I grew out of the liturgical idea that, as a human being, I was “of little merit” and that going hungry for a day heightened my drive to do better. Still, I persisted in keeping the fast – and found that it got easier to keep.

As I reached my thirties, for five consecutive years I was either pregnant or nursing and chose to keep nourishing my child rather than keep the fast. It felt strange to be drinking and eating, and I tried to do so in private out of respect to others around me who were fasting. The year after weaning was hard, though. I had once again chosen to keep the fast, and I once again found myself fasting while making food for other people.

Soon, I hope, that phase will pass as my children come of age. Will I find fasting more meaningful then, while I’m helping my children find meaning (or ease, at least) in the custom? Only time will tell.

(Submitted by Stephanie F.)

6. "Nourishing myself on Yom Kippur helped me break the cycle of my anorexia."

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year, but for those of us who struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating, it can be one of the most triggering and challenging.

By age 16, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. At the center of my disorder was the need for control over what I was eating, and a holiday that required me to give up that control sent me into a downward spiral.

For years, Yom Kippur trapped me in a cycle of misery. If I chose to fast, I reinforced the dangerous behaviors that were controlling my life, and if I chose to eat, I felt shameful and disappointed in myself. Either way, I felt like a bad Jew for allowing my disorder to control my experience with prayer and spirituality.

After one exceptionally difficult year, I started the long journey of recovery. Hand-in-hand with my parents, I vowed to try and change the path of self-destruction on which I was set. By the time Yom Kippur arrived, my parents insisted that I eat, despite my adverse reaction to the idea. Nourishing myself on Yom Kippur helped me break the cycle of my anorexia.

Now, I proudly eat on Yom Kippur to concentrate, repent, and fully appreciate the holiday.

(Excerpted from Julia T.'s essay "Why I Won't Be Fasting on Yom Kippur")

7. “I’m lucky to be in good health and able to fast.”

Every year, in the weeks leading up to Yom Kippur, I have the same internal debate: to fast or not to fast? I know the idea is to concentrate on prayer and atonement instead of food (because let’s be honest, food is a focus of many mainstream Jewish holidays!), but for me and many others, it sometimes has the opposite effect: I get distracted by how hungry I am and spend time that I should be focused on introspection instead praying my stomach doesn’t growl during a quiet time in services. I count down the hours until sunset and try to keep it together while food shopping for the break-fast.

And yet, each year, I fast anyway. I tell myself I’m lucky to be in good health and able to do it, and I’m fortunate that this isn’t my everyday reality, as it is for so many food-insecure families around the world. There’s also something communal about breaking the fast with friends and family, after all having been through it together, and I think I would feel like something was missing if I had eaten during the day.

Maybe my fast is in the spirit of Yom Kippur, after all: I think about those less fortunate than me, try to do a mitzvah (good deed) by donating food or clothes, and come together with my friends, family, and community – which is perhaps the most Jewish thing of all.

(Submitted by Jenny T.)

If you're fasting on Yom Kippur, check out. Can't fast for medical reasons? Try reciting this "Meditation Before Yom Kippur for One Who Cannot Fast."

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